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Sunday, October 1, 2023

Mulchic — a glimpse into Maya Warfare in the Puuc Valley

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Mulchic is covered in vegetation, and hornet nests are fairly common, so be well-prepared. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Pop culture images of the Maya often seem to go in extreme directions. These visions of Maya society oscillate between bloodthirsty people obsessed with human sacrifice to the equally absurd fantasy of a noble race of peaceful folks living in perfect harmony with nature. 

The haze of time sometimes blinds us to the fact that the ancients were people just like us, though fortunately, skull deformation has fallen out of fashion. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

In reality, Maya societies were far from homogeneous and, like us, could achieve beautiful feats of wonder while having an eye always set on warfare. 

The Puuc region is one of the most archaeological densely packed areas in all of Mesoamerica, with sites like Labna and Sayil open to the public and dozens of others deep in the jungle. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

In the Yucatán, this duality is exemplified by the many sites of the Puuc region, some of which were peaceful farming communities while others were essentially military bases. Representing the latter is Mulchic (sometimes spelled Mul-Chic).

The tallest structure at Mulchic is the step pyramid known only as Structure A. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Built in the 5th century, Mulchic is widely believed to have served as a strategic military settlement on the sacbé connecting Uxmal to Kabah and Santa Elena. 

Unlike Uxmal or Kabah, archaeological restoration at Mulchic has been quite limited. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The main focus of the research at Mulchic has always been its impressive frescoes depicting battle and military life. The largest measures 28 by 8 feet, making it the largest of its kind in the Puuc region.

The main chamber within which most of the frescoes at Mulchic were discovered. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Though as nowhere as well preserved as the frescoes at Bonampak, these scenes offer invaluable information regarding warfare in the Puuc region. 

A vaulted structure has the remains of a Puuc-style crest. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Because most Mesoamerican weapons were built using both perishable and nonperishable materials, few relatively intact examples still survive to this day.  Given the historical value of Mulchic’s frescoes, they were moved to Mérida in the 1980s for research and restoration. 

The macuahuitl is a Mesoamerican weapon made up of a wooden club with several embedded obsidian blades. Image from the Florentine codex. Photo: Courtesy

Like many ancient societies, the Maya drew no clear distinction between civic, religious, and military life, and military leaders are often shown wearing large headdresses and abundant jewelry — though it is unlikely they would throw themselves into battle wearing such heavy gear. 

Image of a military leader outfitted in full ceremonial garb. Based on a badly eroded image found in the southern section of Mulchic’s chamber of frescoes. Illustration: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine.

The same principle applies to common soldiers, though to a lesser degree. 

Most of the warriors depicted on the murals at Mulchic are shown carrying what is likely a projectile-type spear known as a átlatl.

The átlatl likely originates in Mexico’s central valley and was especially deadly given the force with which it could be thrown using a detachable counterweight at its base. Image: Courtesy

Sections of the original murals and a couple of lintels are in Mérida’s archaeology and anthropology museum, though they are not always on display. Reproductions can be seen in Mérida’s Museo del Mundo Maya

A section of one of the largest and best-preserved frescoes from Mulchic. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

If you go

Though Mulchic is right in the heart of the Puuc route, getting there can be a challenge because there are no signs indicating its location. 

Mulchic is near Santa Elena, Yucatán. Image: Google Maps

The best way to get to the site is to hire a local guide in Santa Elena because getting to Mulchic requires making your way by foot through a few ejidos, and it’s best to do so with a local. The same is true of other area sites that are not open to the public, such as Xcoch.

The remains of what was likely once an elite residence in the middle of the ceremonial center at Mulchic. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine 
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy, and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway.
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